Joseph Smith's First Vision/No reference to First Vision in 1830s publications
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Is there no reference to the First Vision in 1830s publications?
Questions and Answers
Question: How early was the story of the First Vision known among the members of the Church?
Claims made by critics regarding early knowledge of the First Vision
- It is claimed that "there is absolutely no record of a First Vision prior to 1832." 
- It is claimed that there is "no reference to the 1838 canonical First Vision story in any published material from the 1830s."
- It is claimed that "Not a single piece of published literature (Mormon, non-Mormon, or anti-Mormon) from the 1830s mentions Smith having a vision of the Father and Son."
- If Joseph Smith's First Vision actually occurred, then why wouldn't it have been mentioned in the local newspapers at the time? Since no such record exists, is this evidence that the vision must not have actually occurred?
There is evidence that Church members were aware of elements of the First Vision story as early as 1827
Several LDS commentators - including one member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles - agree that D&C 20:5 (part of the Articles and Covenants of the Church) is the earliest published reference to the First Vision story.  The Articles and Covenants of the Church were presented to the Church membership and then published in the following order.
- The Articles and Covenants of the Church are first verbally presented by Joseph Smith for approval at a Church conference held in Fayette, New York on 9 June 1830 (see Cannon and Cook, Far West Record, 1). The following sequence is found in the Articles and Covenants: (1) forgiveness of sin, (2) entanglement in vanities of the world, (3) visit of an angel with regard to the Book of Mormon plates. This is the exact same sequence presented in the Prophet's unpublished 1832 history and the forgiveness of sins comes during the First Vision event in that document.
- The Articles and Covenants of the Church were read out loud by Oliver Cowdery during a Church conference on 26 September 1830 (see Cannon and Cook, Far West Record, 3).
- The Articles and Covenants of the Church were published in a non-LDS newspaper in Painesville, Ohio (Telegraph, 19 April 1831).
- The Articles and Covenants of the Church were published in an LDS newspaper in Independence, Missouri (Evening and Morning Star, vol. 1, no. 1, June 1832).
- The Articles and Covenants of the Church were published in an LDS newspaper in Independence, Missouri (Evening and Morning Star, vol. 2, no. 13, June 1833).
- The Book of Commandments—which contained the Articles and Covenants—was published in July 1833 in Independence, Missouri (chapter 24, verses 6-7, page 48).
- January 1835 Kirtland, Ohio reprint of an Evening and Morning Star article containing the “Articles and Covenants” (reprint of Evening and Morning Star, vol. 1, no. 1, June 1832, 2; reprinted by Frederick G. Williams).
- The first edition of the Doctrine and Covenants - which contained the Articles and Covenants - was published in September 1835 in Kirtland, Ohio (part 2, section 2, verse 2, pages 77-78).
- June 1836 Kirtland, Ohio reprint of an Evening and Morning Star article containing the “Articles and Covenants” of the Church (reprint of Evening and Morning Star, vol. 2, no. 1, June 1833, 1; reprinted by Oliver Cowdery).
The Joseph Smith Papers: "The historical preamble to the 1830 'articles and covenants,' for example, appears to reference JS’s vision in speaking of a moment when 'it truly was manifested unto this first elder, that he had received a remission of his sins'"
"History, circa Summer 1832 - Historical Introduction," The Joseph Smith Papers:
In the early 1830s, when this history was written, it appears that JS had not broadcast the details of his first vision of Deity. The history of the church, as it was then generally understood, began with the gold plates. John Whitmer mentioned in his history “the commencement of the church history commencing at the time of the finding of the plates,” suggesting that Whitmer was either unaware of JS’s earlier vision or did not conceive of it as foundational.5 Records predating 1832 only hint at JS’s earliest manifestation. The historical preamble to the 1830 “articles and covenants,” for example, appears to reference JS’s vision in speaking of a moment when “it truly was manifested unto this first elder, that he had received a remission of his sins.”6 Initially, JS may have considered this vision to be a personal experience tied to his own religious explorations. He was not accustomed to recording personal events, and he did not initially record the vision as he later did the sacred texts at the center of his attention. Only when JS expanded his focus to include historical records did he write down a detailed account of the theophany he experienced as a youth. The result was a simple, unpolished account of his first “marvilous experience,” written largely in his own hand. The account was not published or widely circulated at the time, though in later years he told the story more frequently.
Question: Why didn't the newspapers in Palmyra take notice of Joseph Smith's First Vision?
Newspapers would not have considered a visionary claim from a 14-year-old boy to have been newsworthy
This claim by critics is indeed strange. We are apparently to believe that the newspapers of the area would consider a claim from a 14-year-old boy as newsworthy. We know that Joseph didn't even tell his family about the vision at the time that it occurred—when his mother asked him, all he said to her was that he had found that Presbyterianism was not true.
When Joseph told the story of his vision to a local minister, he was strongly refuted for doing so
Joseph did, however, make mention of his vision to a Methodist preacher. According to Richard Bushman, Joseph's perceived persecution for telling his story may not have actually been because it was a unique claim, but rather because it was a common one. According to Bushman,
The clergy of the mainline churches automatically suspected any visionary report, whatever its content...The only acceptable message from heaven was assurance of forgiveness and a promise of grace. Joseph's report of God's rejection of all creeds and churches would have sounded all too familiar to the Methodist evangelical, who repeated the conventional point that "all such things had ceased with the apostles and that there never would be any more of them."
Question: What references to the First Vision exist in published documents from the 1830s?
There are several significant references to the First Vision in published documents from the 1830s
- A skeptical account from Rev. John A. Clark mixed nine First Vision story elements together with the story of the coming forth of the Book of Mormon and said that he learned them all in the Fall of 1827 from Martin Harris (John A. Clark, Gleanings by the Way [Philadelphia: W. J. and J. K. Simmon, 1842],---).
- A hostile account from someone who knew Joseph in 1827 reported:
- I, Joseph Capron, became acquainted with Joseph Smith, Sen. in the year of our Lord, 1827. They have, since then, been really a peculiar people -- fond of the foolish and the marvelous -- at one time addicted to vice and the grossest immoralities -- at another time making the highest pretensions to piety and holy intercourse with Almighty God. The family of Smiths held Joseph Jr. in high estimation on account of some supernatural power, which he was supposed to possess.
- Capron obviously disliked and distrusted the Smiths, but he makes it clear that there were claims of holy intercourse (i.e., "communication" with) "Almighty God."
- LDS missionaries were teaching that Joseph Smith "had seen God frequently and personally" and received a commission from Him to teach true religion (The Reflector, vol. 2, no. 13, 14 February 1831).
- LDS missionaries were teaching with regard to Joseph Smith: "Having repented of his sins, but not attached himself to any party of Christians, owing to the numerous divisions among them, and being in doubt what his duty was, he had recourse [to] prayer" (The Fredonia Censor, vol. 11, no. 50, 7 March 1832).
- In October 1832, another Protestant minister wrote to a friend about the Latter-day Saints in his area: "They profess to hold frequent converse with angels; some go, if we may believe what they say, as far as the third heaven, and converse with the Lord Jesus face to face."
- A few months later, in March of 1833, the Reverend Richmond Taggart wrote a letter to a ministerial friend, regarding the activities of Joseph Smith himself in Ohio: "The following Curious occurrance occurred last week in Newburg [Ohio] about 6 miles from this Place [Cleveland]. Joe Smith the great Mormonosity was there and held forth, and among other things he told them he had seen Jesus Christ and the Apostles and conversed with them, and that he could perform Miracles." Here is a clear reference to Joseph Smith stating he had seen Jesus Christ. Joseph’s ‘conversations’ with the Apostles could be a reference to having seen, spoken to, and been ordained to the Priesthood by the early Apostles Peter, James, and John. Having received that Priesthood Joseph Smith was now qualified to perform healings, and other ‘miracles’.
- A Missouri newspaper contains an article on a mass meeting of Latter-day Saints in July 1833, and refers to the Saints’ “pretended revelations from heaven… their personal intercourse with God and his angels… converse with God and his angels….”
- Philastus Hurlbut, following his excommunication from the Church in 1833, went east to Palmyra. He there interviewed many who claimed to have known Joseph Smith before the organization of the Church. Among those interviewed were some who left statements which give us more information on what the Prophet had been claiming at that early period. On November 3, 1833, Barton Stafford testified that Joseph had “professed to be inspired of the Lord to translate the Book of Mormon.” Stafford claimed to have known them “until 1831 when they left this neighborhood.” Five days later, on November 8, Joseph Capron testified that Joseph had made “the highest pretensions to piety and holy intercourse with Almighty God.” In 1884 and 1885 Arthur B. Deming collected affidavits in the Painesville, Ohio area, regarding the early Saints, and their recollection of Joseph Smith. Cornelius R. Stafford had been born in Manchester, NY, in 1813. He testified that Joseph Smith “claimed to receive revelations from the Lord.”
- Oliver Cowdery published the beginning elements of the First Vision story as part of a history of the Church ((December 1834) Latter Day Saints' Messenger and Advocate 1:43.)
- William W. Phelps published a reference to the First Vision in October 1835 in the Church's newspaper ((October 1835) Latter Day Saints' Messenger and Advocate 2:208.)
- The First Vision reference by William W. Phelps was republished as part of hymn #26 in the Saints' first hymnal—March 1836 (see Encyclopedia of Mormonism, 1176).
When the published 1830s fragments of the First Vision story are compared to the as-yet-unpublished 1838 recital, it becomes apparent that the Prophet's account of things stayed steady during this time frame and was probably known among a wider cross-section of the contemporary LDS population than has been previously acknowledged.
- 1834 - "the 15th year of his life" [Cowdery]
- 1838 - "I was at this time in my fifteenth year"
- 1834 - "There was a great awakening, or excitement raised on the subject of religion" [Cowdery]
- 1838 - "there was in the place where we lived an unusual excitement on the subject of religion"
- 1834 - "our brother's mind became awakened" [Cowdery]
- 1838 - "my mind was called up to serious reflection"
- 1834 - "his mother, one sister, and two of his natural brothers, were persuaded to unite with the Presbyterians" [Cowdery]
- 1838 - "My Fathers family were proselyted to the Presbyterian faith"
- 1834 - "his spirit was not at rest day nor night" [Cowdery]
- 1838 - "great uneasiness . . . extreme difficulties . . . my anxieties"
- 1832 - "not attached himself to any party of Christians, owing to the numerous divisions among them" [Missionaries]
- 1838 - "I kept myself aloof from all these parties"; "no small stir and division"
- 1834 - "he was told they were right, and all others were wrong" [Cowdery]
- 1838 - "who was right and who was wrong"
- 1834 - "a general struggle was made by the leading characters of the different sects" [Cowdery]
- 1838 - "priest contending against priest"
- 1834 - "Large additions were made to the Methodist, Presbyterian, and Baptist churches" [Cowdery]
- 1838 - "multitudes united themselves to the different religious parties"
- 1835 - "the world in darkness lay" [Phelps]
- 1838 - "I came to the conclusion that I must either remain in darkness"
- 1835 - "he sought the better way" [Phelps]
- 1838 - "I was one day reading the Epistle of James"
- 1832 - "being in doubt what his duty was" [Missionaries]
- 1838 - "I often said to myself, what is to be done?"
- 1832 - "he had recourse [to] prayer" [Missionaries]
- 1838 - "I kneeled down and began to offer up the desires of my heart to God"
- 1831 - "he had seen God . . . personally" [Missionaries]
- 1838 - "I saw two personages . . . One of them spake unto me calling me by name and said (pointing to the other) 'This is my beloved Son, Hear him'"
Here then are several early testimonies from friendly and non-LDS sources, confirming that Joseph Smith and/or the missionaries were talking about Joseph conversing with Jesus Christ, angels, Apostles (Peter, James and John?), and “Almighty God.” Evidently the early Saints were doing a lot more talking about these things than the critics want their readers to know about.
FairMormon Perspectives offers answers to these questions
Ron Barney, "Joseph Smith’s Visions: His Style and his Record," Proceedings of the 2013 FAIR Conference (1 August 2013)
Joseph Smith left a tradition wherein it is clear that he claimed to have experienced a number of divine encounters with heavenly beings. Brodie, Decker, and Hunt would have you believe that any reasonable person, after witnessing these heavenly manifestations, would have run home, grabbed his diary to carefully describe in great detail what he experienced before sprinting from neighbor to neighbor shouting, “Guess what happened to me?” And then after the next heavenly event he witnessed, they demand, he would have done the same thing: “Guess what happened to me this time,” and so on. The best historical evidence demonstrates that this line of thinking concerning Joseph Smith is a defective premise, entirely.
To see citations to the critical sources for these claims, click here
- Jeremy Runnells, Letter to a CES Director. www.cesletter.com
- See Hyrum M. Smith, Doctrine and Covenants Commentary (Liverpool: George F. Richards, 1919), 139; Robert L. Millet and Kent P. Jackson, eds., Studies in Scripture, Volume 1: The Doctrine and Covenants (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1989), 110–11; Grant Underwood, “First Vision,” in Daniel H. Ludlow, ed., Encyclopedia of Mormonism (New York: Macmillan, 1992), 2:410; Stephen E. Robinson and H. Dean Garrett, A Commentary on the Doctrine and Covenants (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2000), 1:130.
- "History, circa Summer 1832 - Historical Introduction," The Joseph Smith Papers, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
- Richard L. Bushman, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling (New York: Knopf, 2005), 41.
- Joseph Capron affidavit, 8 November 1833; in Eber D. Howe, Mormonism Unvailed (Painesville, OH, 1834), 258-259. (Affidavits examined)
- Noah Webster, An American Dictionary of the English Language (New York: S. Converse, 1828), s.v. "intercourse." defines the term as simply " Communication.... Silent communication or exchange."
- Regarding the reference in the Palmyra Reflector, Richard Abanes, in his anti-Mormon work Becoming Gods, boldly declares in the main body of his text on page 34 that "[n]ot a single piece of published literature" mentions the First Vision, yet in an endnote at the back of the book on page 338 acknowledges this newspaper account. He attempts to dismiss this by claiming that the reference is "vague," yet acknowledges that "as early as 1831 Smith might have been starting to privately tell select persons that he had at some point seen God."
- Rev. B. Pixley, Christian Watchman, Independence Mo., October 12, 1832; in Among the Mormons. Historic Accounts by Contemporary Observers, Edited by William Mulder and A. Russell Mortensen (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1958): 74. This article by Pixley was reprinted in Independent Messenger (Boston, Mass.) of November 29, 1832; also in Missouri Intelligencer (Columbia, Mo.), and the American Eagle (Westfield, New York). Cited also in Hyrum Andrus, Joseph Smith, The Man and The Seer (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1960), 68, note 46. It is not clear what Rev. Pixley was referring to by the comment about the third heaven, though it may refer to the Vision of the Three Degrees of Glory [DC 76:], which had been received February 1832, and published in July in the Evening and Morning Star, in Kirtland, Ohio. Verse 20 indicates that “we beheld the glory of the Son, on the right hand of the Father….”
- Richmond Taggart to the Reverend Jonathan Goings, 2 March 1833, 2, Jonathon Goings Papers, American Baptist Historical Society, Rochester, New York, quoted in Hurlbut. Dan Vogel (editor), Early Mormon Documents (Salt Lake City, Signature Books, 1996–2003), 5 vols, 1:205. See also Gregory A. Prince, Power from on High: The Development of Mormon Priesthood (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1995), 8.
- Missouri Intelligencer (August 10, 1833); quoted in John A. Widtsoe, Evidences and Reconciliations: Aids to Faith in a Modern Day, arranged by G. Homer Durham (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1960), 337. GL direct link
- Dan Vogel (editor), Early Mormon Documents (Salt Lake City, Signature Books, 1996–2003), 5 vols, 2:22, 24. Original in Eber D. Howe, Mormonism Unvailed (Painesville, OH, 1834), 251&ndash 252, and 258–260, respectively. (Affidavits examined)
- Dan Vogel (editor), Early Mormon Documents (Salt Lake City, Signature Books, 1996–2003), 5 vols, 2:107. Original in Arthur B. Deming, Naked Truths About Mormonism newspaper (January 1888), 3.